Whither the Wilson?

Debate and discussion over the future of the Wilson Hospital has been going on for well over a decade.

It has proven frustratingly difficult to find out what is happening from the Clinical Commissioning Group and even harder to get involved in one of the most significant changes to Cricket Green in a generation.

This blog shares the facts about what’s going on as we know them. It has been pieced together from different sources and some of it has only become public as a result of our Freedom of Information requests.

The punchline is that the Wilson is likely not to become the new community health centre for Mitcham.

What we have learned suggests the Wilson is being lined up as a new housing estate instead. The new health centre looks as though it is heading for Sibthorpe Road car park and it would seem there are plans for Mitcham Library to move out of its locally listed building and share premises with the health centre. This in turn will free up the Mitcham Library site for development. The other large healthcare site at Birches Close is also being lined up for new housing.

It shouldn’t really be down to us as a local community group to break this news.

Nor should it be taking so long to provide Mitcham with the healthcare facilities all the public bodies have identified as a priority. We wish that the Clinical Commissioning Group responsible for these decisions was more upfront and open with the community regarding its plans, and that it showed a greater sense of urgency in meeting Mitcham’s healthcare needs.

The Wilson story goes back more than a decade. At first we were told it was one of four sites being considered for a “Local Care Centre” designed to meet the healthcare needs of “East Merton”. This followed a decision not to proceed with developing the site in The Canons which would later fall to Merton Council to line up for new housing through its failed Merantun venture.

The plan was part of a wider investment in Local Care Centres in Merton that saw the new Nelson Health Centre open in 2015. Despite “concerns about how the Mitcham LCC was lagging so far behind the others” being expressed at the Clinical Commissioning Group’s Programme Board in 2013 its plans for Mitcham had only just got going by the time the Nelson opened. This was when the decision was made to select the Wilson over Birches Close or either of the two car parks at Raleigh Gardens and Sibthorpe Road as the “preferred option” for developing the new health centre.

By 2017 the proposals had been renamed as the “Wilson Health & Wellbeing Campus” although we were still unable to get any commitment to an opening date. Instead the local community was shocked to find healthcare provision being reduced and not expanded with the abrupt decision to close the Wilson’s GP service and walk-in centre.

It took until 2018 for an announcement to be made that the “new health and wellbeing space” would open “towards the end of 2021”. Within months this opening date was moved to the “end of 2022” when the project encountered funding problems in the NHS.

It didn’t take long for the certainty over the Wilson’s future as a health centre to begin to crack.

First, we found NHS Property Services lobbying Merton Council to include provision for up to 39 flats and town houses on the Wilson site in its revised Local Plan. Then in response to our direct question at its AGM the Clinical Commissioning Group confirmed that “the health and wellbeing hub planned for Mitcham and surrounding communities remains a key priority” and studiously avoided making any reference to the Wilson itself. This elusive wording was repeated in answering a later question which also signalled yet another delay in the opening date when it confirmed “the facility will not be ready to open as previously estimated in 2022.”

The reasons for change in direction have now become clear. Close reading of NHS Property Services most recent submission on Merton’s Local Plan shows it wants to change the policy allocating the Wilson site for healthcare development so the green light can be given for “residential if the existing services are relocated within an alternative healthcare facility in the wider Mitcham area.” It also asks for the following phrase to be deleted – “development of the site is an opportunity to provide a health centre and a community health hub in a neighbourhood with health inequalities and poor health.” The submissions also support residential development of Birches Close regardless of what happens at the Wilson.

NHS Property Services clearly has residential development on both the Wilson and Birches Close sites near the top of its agenda for Mitcham. Yet, the health inequalities across Merton still exist and the need for them to be addressed through new investment is well established. So if the new community health centre isn’t to be provided at the Wilson where will it go? And how many more years will we have to wait?

The evidence is pointing in one direction – Sibthorpe Road car park just off Fair Green in the heart of Mitcham village. The first clue is buried in the most recent Local Plan comments from NHS Property Services. The car park is owned by Merton Council and not the NHS but the NHS is seeking to include provision for “community and health uses” in whatever happens on the site.

The strongest evidence has come via our recent Freedom of Information request (available here). This confirms that an economic assessment of the relative merits of the Wilson and Sibthorpe Road car park has been carried out which is “beginning to show a profit for the Sibthorpe position.” It also confirms the intention to move Mitcham Library to the new site. The papers also include a project brief revealingly titled as being for the “Mitcham (formerly Wilson) Health and Wellbeing Community Hub”. The proposals include a report which “will also make reference to the possible disposal of the Wilson Hospital site and Birches for residential development as a potential funding solution.”

So why does this matter? In the end it could be the best outcome for future healthcare. We have always questioned why the Wilson was chosen as the preferred site over Sibthorpe Road car park given its better transport links and easier accessibility. A well designed development could make good use of a rundown car park. It also provides the opportunity to revitalise the limited service currently provided at Mitcham Library in a new location.

But still it matters. It matters because of the way these decisions have been made, leaving the local community in the dark about the future of their neighbourhood. It matters because of the consequences of significant development now being lined up for the Wilson, Birches Close and Mitcham Library, each of which has locally listed buildings and its own special character. And it matters because after more than a decade of delay and obfuscation and three changes in the opening date we can expect to wait many more years before Mitcham and Pollards Hill are provided with the healthcare facilities that all the public bodies involved say are urgently needed.

There are still ways to turn things around. The Clinical Commissioning Group could transform its understanding of how community collaboration works in practice. Merton Council could write a Local Plan that guarantees well designed and sensitive development. The local community could be brought in not only to define local health needs but also to codesign the future development on all four sites.

The powerful legacy of the Wilson Hospital comes from it being endowed to the local community by Sir Isaac Wilson a century ago. The last year has shown us all the benefits that can come from collaboration between health bodies, local authorities and local communities. Now we have the opportunity to create an equally powerful and contemporary legacy for the future. We stand ready to help.